The day after he outlined his new vision of government, President Clinton found himself back on the defensive. His aides were soft-pedaling an important element of Clinton’s speech to Congress on Tuesday and struggling to explain how it became an 81-minute marathon.
Even as the president’s motorcade carried him past flying flags and welcoming signs along the Main Street of this Pennsylvania Dutch town, White House aides faced queries on Wednesday ranging from whether the president would actually seek an increase in the minimum wage - which he advocated in the speech - to whether he would extend to his own legal defense fund the ban on lobbyists’ gifts that he asked Congress to adopt voluntarily for itself.
By the end of the day, the White House had made clear that while Clinton favored raising the minimum wage by 75 cents, to $5 an hour, the certainty of Republican opposition meant that he would not send a specific proposal to Congress until he did more to test the waters there.
And after a sharp goose-and-gander challenge from Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the trustees of Clinton’s “legal expense trust” said they had “agreed to the request of the president and first lady” that future contributions from registered lobbyists be refused, though past ones would not be returned.
Explaining the length of the speech was tougher. Aides said that Hillary Rodham Clinton had told the president that near-final drafts did not sound like him and urged him to recast them in his own words. So, they said he spent much of Tuesday huddled with his wife, dictating long revisions of the opening and closing sections into a tape recorder, then tinkering until he set out for the Capitol at 8:30 p.m.
Together with scores of interruptions for applause, Clinton’s additions transformed what aides had timed at no more than 40 minutes into twice that length, the longest speech a president has ever delivered as a State of the Union Message. Even before it was over, administration officials acknowledged on Wednesday, it became the subject of dark humor on the floor of the House of Representatives, where Dole, the Republican leader, leaned over to Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, and threatened to call for a recess.
Dole also said on Wednesday that Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 92-year-old Republican from South Carolina, had asked him halfway through the address if there would be an intermission.
Officially, the White House expressed no regret about Clinton’s loquaciousness - which far exceeded his now infamous speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention, which lasted just 32 minutes. Aides said that surveys by news media organizations showed that the president had kept the attention of his national television audience and that Americans had responded favorably to his appeal.
Indeed, preliminary overnight television ratings from the nation’s 32 largest television markets showed that 46 percent of all viewers watched the president’s speech, according to a survey of the four major networks. At least one of them, CBS, said its figures showed no drop-off in viewership at half-hour intervals.
“There was a lot that he wanted to talk about,” said Michael McCurry, the White House spokesman, who added that Clinton had recognized that his additions were making the speech longer but had not expected Republicans to join in the applause that brought so many interruptions.
But White House officials sounded rueful in conceding that a consequence of Clinton’s verbosity could be diffusion of the themes he is trying to project as he battles for attention with the new Republican Congress.
Those battles were clear in Dole’s post-mortem of the State of the Union on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “The president talked about lobbying,” Dole said. “He did not mention how many lobbyists contributed to his legal defense fund. So if we are going to stop and give it all back, maybe we will hear that announcement today that all that money is going to go back.”
Administration officials acknowledged that Clinton had recognized the power of Dole’s argument that the president should not demand that Congress restrict lobbyists’ contributions while continuing to accept them himself.